A Booming Urban Housing Market Reaches A Small Town On The Eastern Plains

May 24, 2019

Out on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, the sound of hammers and saw blades cuts through the steady silence. A construction site hums next to a solitary cluster of nearly 150 newly built homes and 48 apartment units.

In the small town of Wiggins, where a pair of grain silos are the tallest structures for miles, the population of less than 900 hadn’t grown in over a decade. But with this new development, the town’s on track to double in size by the middle of 2020.

Growth, spurred by a booming real estate market along Colorado’s Front Range, isn’t welcomed by all of the town’s residents, but Paul Larino believes it was necessary.  

“The town was facing a lot of financial considerations and no revenue to take care of it.” he said.  

Back in 2014, when Larino first took his current position as town manager, the lack of housing meant he spent the first nine months living in a neighboring town and commuting an hour each way. And there were other problems. Wiggins had recently spent $8 million to replace an outdated water treatment system, drastically increasing water fees for residents.

After more than a decade of stagnation, Wiggins has seen its population explode in just a few years.
Credit Esther Honig

To prevent fees from rising again in the future, Larino realized the town had no choice but to grow.

“Is there a way to take this small town that hasn’t seen anything happen for 20 years and move it forward?” he remembered asking himself.  

And it worked. Larino believes Wiggins has managed fill a gap in the current market by offering a comfortable middle ground to prospective home buyers; people who want to be able to visit the Rocky Mountains and Denver, which are about an hour’s drive away, but prefer to avoid the congestion and costs.

According to the Colorado Association of Realtors, median home prices in Wiggins are 25% to 40% cheaper compared to Denver and Fort Collins.

“(Wiggins is) for people who want to have that feel and lifestyle of living away from a large city, but have the access to that city,” Larino said.

But not everyone is pleased with how much the town has changed in just a few short years. Larino recalls how one resident berated his work crew for paving the street she lived on.

“I came to Wiggins to live on a dirt road,” he recalls her saying. But other lifelong residents, like Gail Stencel, sees the growth as largely positive. As president of the local bank and a business owner, she said more residents equals great support for the local economy.

Like many towns on the Eastern Plains, Wiggins is a farming community. But diminishing profits and high startup costs have shrunk opportunities for young people.
Credit Esther Honig

“I’m not one that says that I wish (Wiggins) would stay like it always was. It won’t. It either will go backward or it will go forward. But it will never stay the same,” she said.

For the first time in over 20 years, the local hardware store has expanded and the town recently approved plans for a new downtown cafe and office space.

At Wiggins High School, district superintendent Trent Kerr watches from the bleachers as students compete in the school’s first ever track meet. Young runners line up in a row and wait for the pop of the starter pistol.  

Behind them sits the new Wiggins High School building, which opened in January. Kerr said in the last eight years the number of students in the district has exploded, starting in the mid-400s and reaching close to 700.

“As growth has happened it’s brought a complete new ... birth of the town,” he said.

Workers assemble new homes as part of a housing development. Prices in Wiggins are much lower compared to Denver and Fort Collins.
Credit Esther Honig

As many small towns on the Eastern Plains continue to shrink in population, Wiggins finds itself in a somewhat unique situation. Kenneth Johnson, a demographer with the University of New Hampshire, has been studying rural counties across the U.S. Through his research, which examines census information dating back to the 1900s, he’s found that while about a third of rural counties are depopulating, another third are thriving. For places like Wiggins, that’s thanks in large part to their location.

“Places on the peripheries or just beyond the peripheries of metro areas are starting to see more growth again as they might have seen before the recession hit,” Johnson said.

In places like Wiggins, new residents have the option to commute to work in the city, or work from home with high-speed internet, which Wiggins has. Other rural towns located next to recreational amenities, like lakes and mountains, are also attracting people.   

For residents like Trent Kerr, the town’s growth means a brighter future, but now the challenge lies in how they’ll hold onto the values and culture that define Wiggins.    

“To still keep that small town feel of who we were and bring those (new) people into the culture,” he said.  

Bringing more people into the fold is likely what the town will continue to do. Town manager Paul Larino estimates there’s about $20 million in infrastructure that they’ll have to pay for over the next 10 years — real costs that can be offset by more development.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Trent Kerr's name.

This story is part of an occasional series looking at the growing pains facing communities along the northern Front Range.